Sunday, April 08, 2007

The Online-Offline debate: Forging alliances with the competition

With every new initiative and invention, there usually are fallouts. For instance, with automation, lot of workers lost their jobs, and with automobiles, the horses moved to the race courses. On the other hand, there have been situations when a new technology has facilitated a new product form, instead of killing the old one. Electronic Media was once touted as the killer guy. But we know for sure that newspapers, magazines, electronic media and now, the blogs live together, in harmony.

Online tutoring is one such innovation that has seen all the arguments against it from varied quarters. Some critics claim that the distance mode doesn’t ensure the human interaction necessary for an effective learning. And since there is no physical face to the service, the student is not able to relate to the tutor. The etutoring service providers refute this claim, and give counter arguments as well. Technological improvements have also helped allay some apprehensions. Inspite of this healthy debate, the etutor is being seen as an “outside” competitor to the home-tutor or an in-center tutor.

However, one does not need to take a bipolar view of the world all the time. In this situation, it does help to put the two together and provide the best of both worlds. I must confess that we came to this opportunity more by accident than by design. One tutoring company actually got in touch with us, asking for online tutors that could assist them in getting more business! After the initial response of disbelief, we went through a couple of rounds of discussions to understand the philosophy. This company has about 5 teachers on their roles, who visit the children’s homes to teach them face-to-face. But there was demand from their region that they couldn’t satisfy because of the few teachers. Hiring more teachers was not only costly, but also difficult considering the quality of service needed. Hiring online tutors made sense because of the flexibility it offered them. We worked out a model where their teachers would enroll a student, and take a couple of classes in the beginning. Later they would introduce the student to her online tutor, and complement the learning process with regular face-to-face meetings. In effect, they became our face to the student. The parents were less apprehensive because they had someone to talk to in person. We could provide an extremely localized service because of the inputs provided by the student’s local tutor. It has been a win-win for all of us, and provided us with an option to collaborate, not compete!

There are more instances of such efforts, and we are still learning the new models of business. The conventional thinking of splitting the business verticals into clearly defined roles for the partners doesn’t seem to work here. In our case, the two partners exchange notes, almost on a daily basis, to arrive at the best service to the student. Slowly, the new concept of a “hybrid tutor” is catching up, and we hope to replicate the model in other places.